Susanna Clarke has won the £30,000 Women's Prize for Fiction with her "truly original" second novel, Piranesi (Bloomsbury).
The announcement was made at an in-person awards ceremony in Bedford Square Gardens, central London, today (8th September), hosted by novelist and prize founder director Kate Mosse. The 2021 chair of judges, Bernardine Evaristo, presented the author with the £30,000 prize, endowed by an anonymous donor, and the "Bessie", a limited edition bronze figurine by Grizel Niven. The 2020 prize winner Maggie O'Farrell was also presented with a masked version of the trophy.
Evaristo said: “We wanted to find a book that we'd press into readers’ hands, which would have a lasting impact. Susanna Clarke has given us a truly original, unexpected flight of fancy which melds genres and challenges preconceptions about what books should be. She has created a world beyond our wildest imagination that also tells us something profound about what it is to be human.”
The winner's novel was published long after after her multi award-winning 2004 debut Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Bloomsbury) and follows the eponymous character as he navigates his house, set in the world of a "watery labyrinth".
Clarke, who was struck by a chronic illness after her debut's release, said of her win: "I have loved being a shortlisted author. I think I will love [being the winner] too, once I get over the shock. Piranesi was nurtured, written and publicised during a long illness, it was the book I never thought I'd get to write, I never thought I'd be well enough. So this feels doubly extraordinary, I'm doubly honoured to be here. My hope is that my standing here tonight will encourage other women who are incapacitated by long illness."
She thanked her editor Alexandra Pringle and agent Jonny Geller who “immediately had faith in what I thought was a very odd book indeed”, alongside her publicist Ros Ellis and her husband Colin Greenland. "This is an immense, incredible honour," she added.
Speaking to The Bookseller at the award ceremony, head fiction buyer at Waterstones Bea Carvalho said: "It's a really brilliant book commercially for us - it's fiction at its boldest and most exciting, such an original book that stretches genre boundaries and is sure to have a lasting impact on publishing in the coming years. It's been a book a lot of us have been anticipating for some time, 16 years in the making and we've been really looking forward to it.
"The Women's Prize always has such a big impact on sales, so we're really pleased the judges have chosen to highlight Piranesi as the champion, so we can introduce her work to so many more people. It's such an innovative, original work of fiction, and we can't wait to celebrate it with all our customers."
Clarke saw off competition from a shortlist featuring Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half (Dialogue Books), Yaa Gyasi's Transcendent Kingdom (Penguin), Patricia Lockwood's No One is Talking About This (Bloomsbury Circus), Claire Fuller's Unsettled Ground (Fig Tree) and Cherie Jones for How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House (Tinder Press).
A spokesperson for Bloomsbury said: "Piranesi is an intriguing beautiful wonder and we are so delighted for Susanna and want to extend our congratulations from everyone at Bloomsbury. We knew this was a special novel, and in these times we all need a book that transports us into a different world but retains what it is to be human. The judges called the book truly original and we couldn’t agree more.”
This year's judging panel, headed by Evaristo, included Elizabeth Day, podcaster, author and journalist; Vick Hope, TV and radio presenter, journalist and writer; Nesrine Malik, print columnist and writer; and Sarah-Jane Mee, news presenter and broadcaster.
In total, Clarke has sold 456,414 books in the UK for £3.75m through Nielsen BookScan's Total Consumer Market. Piranesi shifted 32,484 copies in hardback and has sold 4,954 after just three days in paperback.